Thursday, September 17, 2009

So it Goes, part 12: Love Is Like Nuclear Waste

I began to lead a double life. My nights were spent in the city getting a taste of college student ne'er-do-well independence, my days at home with one foot still in the world of my childhood.

Punk music was thriving then. I borrowed one of my dad’s one-inch-wide ties from the ‘50s and one of his old tie clips and would go out with my college friends, hitting clubs like Neo and Exit and O'Banions and the record store Wax Trax. Every day felt exciting when you had something to look forward to at night. The clouds during the day were alternately black and ominous and fluffy white, racing across the sky pushed by a blustery fall wind, and it seemed and felt as though something was happening, something big was going on.

I saw a punk show at the old Ivanhoe Theater with my friends from the suburbs. We stood gaping in our flannel shirts and blue jeans at people covered with makeup, wearing leather boots, hats, and vests; one woman with clear plastic boots; men with safety pins piercing their ears and slogans written on their bare chests. Everyone had come to see a band from the UK called The Stranglers. But I remember the opening act called Tough Darts. The singer had shiny gold teeth. He jumped and gyrated and tried hard to impress the crowd with his fake air of edginess and nastiness. He sang:

Your love is like a nuclear waste
Your body is a danger to the human race
They should stamp contaminated right across your face
Your love is like a nuclear waste!

My friends were disgusted, but I loved every bit of it. I began to hang out more with my college crowd, driving the Fiat 850 Spyder convertible that I had put together from pieces of three cars. I had painted it silver for $50 at Earl Scheib’s. I loved to drive at night with the stereo up as loud as possible without blowing out the expensive Jensen speakers I had installed. The headlights peering into the dark streets looked picturesque at night, like something out of a movie, and you felt you were guiding the car through the blackness like a suit of armor. The engine rumbled appropriately as you thrust the wooden ball handle of the stick shift into one gear, then another. I bought a black leather jacket, and put a black pin on it with the logo of one of the new ska groups: Madness. On the stereo the Talking Heads sang:

Mommy daddy come and look at me now
I’m a big man in a great big town
Years ago who would believe it’s true?
Goes to show what a little faith can do…

And the group called 999 sang “I believe in homicide,” and we felt evil, and dangerous, and angry, even though we were nothing of the sort.

But when the day came I was back at the little house on the suburban prairie. I wanted to make cookies for one of my college friends’ wild parties to be held that weekend. I spread out the ingredients in the kitchen. My mother and sister sat in the living room watching the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

“Why did they pick Miss Venezuela?” my mother said.

“She’s cute,” Laurie responds with the all-encompassing word still used by women to describe virtually anything they find positive. She was polishing an old pot with copper cleaner. Outside was the clang of a steel wrench hitting the pavement and the angry voice of a young man swearing; no one took any notice, it was the sort of sound you heard nearly every day on the driveways of the suburbs. The antique writing table my mother found at one of her garage sales was piled with papers and boxes of valuables she planned to sell at a flea market.

In the kitchen I attacked the pots and pans that were stinking with dried-up food. Bags of garbage littered the floor. Mom came in to help me cook. Her usual worries and complaints dropped away as she instructed me. This was clearly her domain. I noticed, without any feeling or curiosity, how clumsy she was with arthritic fingers that were already growing swollen and misshapen and making her work hours as a stenographer painful. She used a magnifying glass to read the cooking recipe. Like my father, she now needed reading glasses.

She also gave me about twice as many instructions as I needed, just like my father when he was showing me how to change the oil or solder a circuit board. "Make sure the butter is soft," she said. "You might want to put it out on the counter beforehand. You can even warm it in your hands—" the butter slipped to the floor and I picked it up.

The phone rang. It was my Aunt Willamae, calling to talk about antiques, as she did perhaps ten times a day. “Can you believe how much that woman was asking for that chicken coop?”

“I’m in the middle of a cooking recipe, I’ll call you back,” Mom said. But then: "How much did she say they were?" These two activities, cooking and antiques, were the whole of her life. It seemed "cute" to me.

But in my newspaper columns I did not write about her, or about the angry young men, or the beauty pageant, or my nights in the city, or the women I pined over. I wrote elaborate fantasies about life in Des Plaines and the trials of getting through the fall and winter. I recorded the everyday moments of my life in my notebooks, where they would sit for the next thirty years.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Laurie said...

I was polishing a copper pot?! Yes, possible just to see how pretty it might come out before Mom sold it.

Nice writing, good thing you kept those journals.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Greg Holden said...

I think you were just getting practice for cleaning in later years.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had to love the punk scene. It was a bit edgy for the midwest mentality but good for their soul.

5:08 PM  

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